The Lifecycle of a Designer: Part 2

Thanks for all the great comments and input you have left from Part 1. It has really given me a great insight to what you want to see here on Design Sojourn.
So onwards to Part 2!
In the Part 1 we looked at the hierarchy and life cycle of a design professional. Here in Part 2, we will take a deeper look at the roles and responsibilities of these design positions. I hope that at the end of the day, I can give you a small insight on how to prepare yourself for your next big position.
Each role will start with a short description, then an expectation of the roles and responsibilities. The finally a list of what sort of work should be highlighted in your portfolio.
But before I go on, I like to make a disclaimer. These examples are based on both my personal experience, opinion as well as observations. They may differ to what you may or will experience as it depends a lot on individual capabilities, job environment and even the country you are in. However I will strive to make these descriptions as informational as possible, but should there be some inaccuracies or variations please do share your insights in the comments sections.

Junior Designer (0-2 Years)
We all start here, even me. Fresh out of school, wide eyed, full of passion and energy. At this stage you would be expecting a tough culture shock as you will finally experience design in the real world as compared to how design is treated in the education environment.
Fear not. Many of you will be quite well trained, just that you don’t really know it yet! Also you don’t have to be 100% perfect nor are you expected to be, but you should be able to demonstrate a strong understand of design and the process required to do it. Basically you will be expected to have the ability to think and come up with creative solutions.
Therefore for your first portfolio, you should be looking to present a variety of design work that demonstrates how you think as a designer. Process and variety is the key here, and not always necessary to do with design. Also consider that your portfolio also shows the types of design skills you may posses. Examples of 3D CAD or sketching are always great, but don’t overwhelm your portfolio of examples focusing only on, 2D vector work, unless you really want a position that only does 2D work.
Middle Weight Designer (3-5 Years)
At this level, you would have probably clocked a few years of projects under your belt. Unfortunately this is a tough time for many designers as you may start to feel jaded after too many long nights, tough managers/clients and tight datelines. And yes many designers give up.
If you decide to give up, all I can say to you is “there is no free lunch” in design, and everyone has to do his/her “time”. However, the key expectation here is to quickly learn to effectively contribute in projects. So designers at this level should strive to get good and comfortable with their design tools. Actually it is this struggle with design tools that let many designers down and cause many to give up. Once you get past your weakness with design tools, you can now really focus on doing good design work.
Portfolios of middle weight designers, should show as much real world work as possible, as this is where it counts the most. Unfortunately many may not have that luxury, so to fill in the gaps, you could still use some solid school work like your very well researched final year project. This is especially if you worked in teams or assigned to smaller roles. Don’t forget examples of design process as well. The good news is solid middle weight designers with good range of real world projects are very employable.
Senior Designer (5+ Years)
The first major milestone for any designer. That magical 5 year mark seems to be the key turning point as you would have gone through quite a number of projects, are pretty good with design tools, and are now actually able to show the world your design ability. Heck, you might even have won a few awards while you are at it.
So you thought life would be easier, now that you mastered your design tools? Well you thought wrong! It gets a whole lot harder as you start to take on more responsibilities within the design business. Senior designer are expected to no only be involved in design development, they are also expected to lead projects, manage design teams or even educate clients on the nuances of design. While this is still a hands on role, it is at this time that designers are able to decide if they want to move into a design management or on a technical design path.
A Senior designer’s portfolio should not contain any more school work. If it does, then it is time to worry. Also many designers make the mistake of showing only completed work or finished renderings, so don’t fall into that trap. While great designs launched in the market are a boon to any portfolio, many managers worry about senior designers picking up a lot of bad habits. So a few projects that shows a solid process with good team work always helps.
Design Manager (8+ Years)
Designer Management is a very multi-disciplinary role or position. He/she basically manages the entire design process and everything that is required to make a product happen. The job scope may include client facing roles, solving engineering problems, creative direction or art direction, and management of designers. A Design Manager would have to manage it all.
Designers inclined towards managing the design process should aim for this position. Unfortunately the skills required are a challenge to obtain. As a Senior Designer, a Design Manager aspirant, would need to do both design realization and design process management. Having both a detailed orientation and big picture view is easier said than done. What is challenging about this role, is you don’t do it once you need to do it over and over again.
A Designer Manager’s portfolio needs to demonstrate a strong range of realized projects that are not only consistently exciting but meaningful. A design manager should also show a strong understanding of the design process and evidence of his/her influence at every stage.
Lead/Principle Designers (10-15+ Years)
I have lumped these two stages together because they are pretty similar to a certain extent. It really depends on the organizations you work for, that determines if this were one position or two. These roles have actually become popular of late as there are an increasing number of talented designers that don’t want to go into management but would rather just continuing to do great design. Being technical in nature, a design career just focusing on form generation does not really pay, and thus these positions were created so that those suitably inclined can continue to do what they do best.
It is interesting to note that these position often contains either the best “form monsters” out there or very experienced designers with many years of experience under their belt (read 40-50 year old designers coming up with great concept work). Most have very strong sensitivity in turning key design propositions into beautiful forms and are always central to any new design project. These Principals are often found in transportation design studios, or organizations with very large design teams.
Portfolio wise it is straight forward. An extensive collection of very successful, and emotionally exciting designs. The portfolio must also show how the designer has been instrumental in the product’s creation process.
From now on, you might notice that skills required start to escalate on to a more strategic level.
Creative Director (15+ Years)
The Creative Director’s role is basically that of a Lead designer, but with the addition of managing the product creation process. Creative Directors are people with a strong feeling of form, and posses a level of creativity that allows them to manage form development on a strategic level. Creative Directors are able to use external influences like branding or business goals and turn them into relevant design language proposals that drive concept design.
Unlike Principle Designers, whose work can be very project focused, Creative Directors are expected to apply their skills on a strategic business level, such as working a design language over multiple product categories. In the consulting businesses, the Creative Director’s efforts are the driving force in getting “the right form for the product”.
Creative Directors have portfolios that are often very product category focused. The design work often spans over multiple products that also shows how a consistent brand language was successfully applied throughout. The best of them also have a good methodology on how design language initiatives are derived from strategic business requirements.
Design Director (15+ Years)
Design Director is the logical next step for a Design Manager. Similar in scope to Creative Directors, Design Directors are responsible for the design management for either entire product categories or the complete running of a design business such as a consulting arm.
As a result of a Design Director’s strategic role in a business, he/she focuses less on technical design that what a Design Manager might do. Design Directors play a key position in any design focused organization as they are often behind the effort to drive it.
I’ll have to say while a Portfolio at this level would still be required, it gets less important in the bigger scheme of things. The experience in running multiple design programs, a strong understanding of the business side of things, and a great competence in design strategy are all key attributes to have. In my opinion the most important skill here is the ability to monetize design and how it can be a strategic competitive advantage for any business.
VP of Design (Years: A lot!)
We finally come to the top of the food chain in corporate design. The title of this position comes in many forms, Chief of Design or Chief Design Officer, etc. are some, but they all mean the same thing. This is the person in charge of the entire design initiative within an organization.
Just like a CEO, only a few people can be qualified for this role. Some who get there may be entrepreneurs, but most have many years of experience with the business side of design. This is how they are able to articulate complex design strategies in a language that the Board of Directors can understand.
In my opinion, designers of this level don’t have products in their portfolio anymore, but they have instead a list of businesses that they successfully ran or evidence of great design strategies they owned.
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Well I hope you enjoyed this two part article and also found the information helpful in your career goals! If you have an interesting career story to share please do not hesitate to leave a comment below.

14 Comments
  • Mark

    August 21, 2008 at 11:25 pm Reply

    I really like this designer series. So many valuable information. Thank you.

  • Niels

    August 22, 2008 at 3:58 am Reply

    Thanks for the great article DT, it should remember most people working in design companies where they stand in their career.

  • Cameron

    August 22, 2008 at 6:09 am Reply

    DT, I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that this information is invaluable to me as a student with two years left… Now I can decide which career path is best for my personal needs and set some goals accordingly.

  • […] The Lifecycle of a Designer: Part 2 is up and running so see you there! […]

  • Bob

    August 22, 2008 at 3:20 pm Reply

    Thanks for this! Would be interesting to hear your thoughts about designers going *further* than the VP role–to CEO, or founder of a company, and what might be required differently for that.

  • DT

    August 24, 2008 at 5:11 pm Reply

    Hello Mark, Niels and Cameron,
    Thank you very much for your kind comments. I am very happy to hear that you have enjoyed the article! Please do keep in touch?
    Hi Bob,
    That is a great question, not only that I have recieved a few requests asking for this same insight. And guess what? It will be my next article and targeted towards designers looking to be entrepreneurs and business owners!

  • gwen

    August 25, 2008 at 7:11 am Reply

    This is very insightful info, cause usually most designers in the field would not try to explain–Different companies places different responsibilities on positions.
    I am curious what would be your opinion for design research positions, cause at work, they tend to blend together (with industrial design) during certain stages of the project.

  • DT

    August 30, 2008 at 9:22 am Reply

    Hi Gwen,
    Sorry for the delay in my response.
    In most companies, industrial designers do their own design research. It is logical as the designers will be doing the designing work anyway.
    In the larger companies, they tend to split up the design research positions from the designing positions as there are many projects running as well and it is advantageous to have some sort of design intelligence system going.
    Hope that answered your question?

  • Steve

    September 4, 2008 at 4:27 pm Reply

    Thank you DT once again for the in-depth information about our carrer path.

  • Richard

    September 5, 2008 at 12:26 pm Reply

    DT,
    I enjoyed your series and found it useful at a time that I am contemplating a career change. A question: Do you think that designers have a difficult time moving to consulting environments from corporate ones, or vice-versa? Perhaps another article… Thanks

  • DT

    September 5, 2008 at 10:39 pm Reply

    Hi Steve,
    Thanks for your kind comments.
    Hi Richard,
    Thanks for your feedback too, and a very good question. I will get to it soon! Do stay tuned.

  • Thomas

    September 7, 2008 at 2:50 pm Reply

    How do i manage a group of designers when my designing skill sets is sub-standard but with mediocre ideas that can win awards and government recognition?

  • DT

    September 7, 2008 at 4:19 pm Reply

    Hi Thomas,
    Thanks for stopping by and for leaving your comments.
    I have to say I don’t really get your comment and I can’t advise you cos I have not seen your work. Either you have low self-confidence or your government does not know what they are doing. Either way it is difficult for me to advise you.
    I would say there is some merit in your ability as you were put in charge of some designers. So lets take this off-line if you like to talk about it more?

  • tyler

    August 17, 2010 at 3:54 am Reply

    DT-
    Thanks for the work you put into this site – insightful and pertinent to this designer.
    I realize this question comes well after this was posted, but I’m wondering if you think the Lead/Principle Designer position can exist in an organization without established Design Management?
    As a highly contributing sr. designer, what arguments and discussion points can I use to persuade my company that elevating my role to include design management would be advantageous?
    thanks

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